Guinness Pro14, Round 8 – preview & team news
Connacht v Munster
The Sportsground, Galway @ 7:35pm
Saturday night’s game at the Sportsground sees the home side looking to build on a big win in Dublin last weekend. It is also a chance to close an 8 point gap on Munster at the top of Conference B.
Last Weekend’s Action
Andy Friend’s men put in their most impressive performance of the season at the RDS last Saturday night. Their bonus point win was their first ever victory at the Ballsbridge venue and their first win in Dublin since a 2002 Magners League win at Donnybrook. However, as Quinn Roux pointed out to his teammates in the post match huddle, this victory should now be consigned to the record books and the westerners need to back it up against Munster this weekend. Roux provided vital leadership in a Connacht side missing Bundee Aki, Jarrad Butler, Tiernan O’Halloran, Kieran Marmion and Paul Boyle.
Munster will know that they were luck to emerge from Ravenhill last weekend with a losing bonus point. They were outplayed for large portions of the match, but they hung on doggedly and were rewarded with a Darren Sweetnam try in the last play of the game. While I would expect Munster to field a much stronger side this weekend, Johann van Grann must balance his team selection. As Munster also have Clermont at home and Harlequins away in back to back Champions Cup clashes to come in the next couple of weeks.
Despite the probable changes in personnel this is an important game for both coaches. As always in any Inter-Pro game local bragging rights are at stake as well as points on the table. It’s first v second in Conference B. Munster are on top of the pile after 8 rounds on 33 points, with Connacht (25 points) closing the gap to 8 after an unexpected 5 point haul from the RDS. Both sides have a game in hand over third placed Scarlets (24), while Cardiff have a return of 18 points from 10 matches in fourth spot.
There was a trio of summer switches from Thomond to Galway. Conor Oliver, Sam Arnold and Alex Wootton all made the move in search of more game time under Andy Friend. The first two were on a permanent basis, while in Wootton’s case it was on a season long loan. Friend confirmed during the week that there is no stipulation in the loan arrangement to prevent Wootton from featuring in Saturday’s meeting between the sides. All three featured in last weekends win in the RDS and one suspects that they will be given the chance to face their former teammates this weekend.
On the sidelines Munster’s attack coach Stephen Larkham will renew acquaintances with Andy Friend. Larkham first encountered Friend as a fresh faced youngster in the Australian academy of sport in 1994. Their respective careers crossed paths again when Friend signed Larkham for the ACT Brumbies in 2011. Speaking on Tuesday Friend said of Larkham “He was just such a talented footballer. You could see that he was very tactical and strategic in the way he played”. He added “like all young coaches you do develop and learn something new each year. You can see the bits and pieces he’s adding there at Munster, and it’s pretty exciting for them”.
Munster won the last five meetings between the sides. A behind closed door meeting in the Aviva in August saw Munster hit Connacht for 42 points and six tries after an early red card for Connacht debutante Abraham Papali’i. He was followed down the tunnel by hooker Shane Delahunt before the interval.
The last meeting between the sides at the Sportsground saw a 14-19 win for the men in red in December of 2019. A Jack O’Donoghue try and four JJ Hanrahan penalties reflected the visitors physical dominance over the hosts on that occasion. Munster also won both clashes during the 2018/19 season on a scoreline of 24-31 at the Sportsground and 27-14 in Thomond. Connacht’s last win over this weekend’s visitors came early in Keiran Keane’s short tenure in Galway. A 20 – 16 win in October 2017 was one of few highlights of that season from a Connacht perspective.
There are three changes from the side that won at the RDS last time out. Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane and Ben O’Donnell come into the starting 15, With Robertoson-McCoy, Thornbury and Sullivan dropping to the bench. Bundee Aki has failed to recover from a knee injury in time for this clash.
Munster are firm favourites for this one at 1.32, while Connacht can be backed at 3.65. The draw is priced at 30. The handicap betting see the Homeside given a 7 point head start.